When photojournalist Lauren Greenfield was 12, she discovered girl culture at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu.
"My fellow campers brought trunks filled with clothes, makeup, blowdryers, hair gels," Greenfield, 37, wrote in an essay. "They straightened their hair, shaved their legs and generally spent huge amounts of time and energy on their appearance."
Back home in Venice, the preteen stood in front of her closet every Saturday, paralyzed by having to decide what to wear to Hebrew school. It didn't help that one classmate owned 17 pairs of Chemin de Fers, the trendy designer jeans of the day.
Greenfield recalled those experiences in the 1990s while shooting "Girl Culture," her provocative photography book and exhibit. The more than 40 color pictures, accompanied by interviews with the subjects, explore how pop culture shapes the psyches of American women and girls. To create the series -- now on display at the Skirball Cultural Center -- Greenfield hung out in dressing rooms, plastic surgery clinics and other places where females literally make themselves up.
In one photograph, Allegra, 4, of Malibu, seductively mimics the moves of a pop star during a game of dress up. Hannah, 13, of Edina, Minn., strikes the stance of a supermodel while posing with the other popular girls in her school clique. Sheena, 15, of San Jose, unhappily assesses her cleavage while trying on skimpy clothing reminiscent of Britney Spears.
Sheena's portrait is "a powerful symbol of all the self-hate and 'bad body fever' that characterizes normal American women," scholar Joan Jacobs Brumberg wrote in the introduction to the show.
"As much as we enjoy our consumption activities (i.e. shop until we drop), many of us are plagued by a pervasive sense of not measuring up..... [Contemporary girls] understand that their power as women will come from their beauty, and that beauty in American culture is defined, increasingly, by a certain body type displayed in particular ways."
Greenfield -- named one of American Photo magazine's 25 most important photographers today -- can relate. One day when she was 6, she sobbed as she looked at herself in the mirror, convinced that she was ugly. She was a chronic dieter as a teenager at the elite Crossroads school.
Her obsession with "body projects" continued as she attended Harvard University and won her first photography award, from the Jewish Historical Society, for a series on elderly Jews. She kept returning to the theme in magazine assignments and in 1995 book, "Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood," which launched her career as a hip chronicler of youth culture.
"Girl Culture" began while she was perusing pictures she had shot in Las Vegas for a German magazine. She kept returning to an image of a 30ish showgirl primping at her dressing table at the Stardust Hotel. Taped to her mirror were magazine cutouts of models and a note, "I approve of myself"; the surrounding area was cluttered with the beauty tools Greenfield first encountered at sleepaway camp. The photographer suddenly realized she had something in common with the showgirl.
"Her photo was a metaphor for how girls create their identities from pieces of the material world and the popular culture," she said. "It also spoke about how women get their sense of worth and self-esteem."
Greenfield learned more in books such as Brumberg's "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls," which described how good looks have replaced good works as the highest form of female perfection. With her 35mm Canon camera, she set off to document the phenomenon in cities as diverse as Beverly Hills and Chattanooga, Tenn.
She captured a model-actress in Manhattan, belles at a Southern debutante ball and African American girls at the Crenshaw High School prom.
She examined the darker parts of the girl culture at a Catskills weight-loss camp and an eating disorder clinic where an anorexic stood with her back to the scale.
"I went to the clinics and the 'fat camps' because they represent the extreme consequences of body image being so paramount in the culture," Greenfield said. "I was interested in how girls' feelings of frustration and sadness are expressed in self-destructive ways: starving themselves, cutting their bodies and being sexually promiscuous."
Greenfield believes the promiscuity is encouraged by the sexual exhibitionism now in vogue in the media. She critiques the phenomenon by placing photos of vamping teens next to images of exotic dancers and actresses.
"Mothers may buy their daughters midriffs to look like Britney Spears, because she's the pop icon of her generation, without understanding the message of what these clothes mean," she said. "When you see these clothes next to the clothes of a porn star, it takes on a more serious meaning."
So is the photographer now resistant to the pressures of the girl culture?
"I don't feel immune," said Greenfield, who lives in Venice with her husband and son.
But being a working mother has liberated her in a way.
"There's little time to worry about looking in the mirror and putting on makeup," she said. "And I feel like this project has been very cathartic. The culture can be harsh and toxic for girls, and therefore is worth critiquing."
For information about the Skirball exhibit, call (310) 440-4500. Photos from Greenfield's "Girl Culture" and "Fast Forward" series will also be on view at the Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, Sept. 13-Nov. 1. For information, call (323) 937-5523.